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Snooping on friends and foes alike

Spying upon friends and foes alike speaks of a lack of confidence. Moreover, curiosity only ends up killing the cat!

mumbai Updated: Feb 13, 2018 16:22 IST
Sujata Anandan
Sujata Anandan
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,phone tapping,snooping
Sometimes those listening in could be your own colleagues — does anyone remember the in-house bugging of Pranab Mukherjee’s offices when he was Finance Minister? (Pic for representation )

Many years ago, an Intelligence officer I knew well since childhood came home to warn me against getting into conversation about Naxalites with a particular US diplomat posted in the city. I had just returned from Gadchiroli and this diplomat was unduly curious about what I may or may not have gathered on my tour of the district. But when I asked the police officer how on earth he knew I had been conversing with the diplomat on any subject at all, he looked at me grimly and said, “Because you are a family friend, I will tell you... We tap phones.”

Even before I could express my outrage, he added disparagingly, “Now, don’t flatter yourself. We were not tapping your phone. We were tapping his. That your conversation got recorded was incidental. Keep away if you don’t want a file opened on you. He is an American spy.”

Years later, as I was working on a story on South African cricketer Hanse Cronje’s role in match-fixing, another top cop told me almost casually, “We were not tapping his or any other cricketer’s phone. We were tapping the gangsters. We stumbled upon the match fixing in the course of that.”

But those were different times when only spies, US or Soviet, and gangsters or terrorists were under the radar of the intelligence services. Today, things have gotten much sinister. Mobile phones are easier to tap than landlines everywhere and most journalists go with the presumption that someone might be listening in. So politicians should not expect that they would not be fair game.

Sometimes those listening in could be your own colleagues — does anyone remember the in-house bugging of Pranab Mukherjee’s offices when he was Finance Minister? The bugs were said to have been planted by a jealous colleague, though Mukherjee later covered up expertly to dismiss the resinous substances stuck all over many of his office rooms as chewing gum!

From listening in to landline or mobile phone conversations to planting obvious bugs, police officers have come a long way now, clumsily recording conversations of opposition leaders with various people at public gatherings and being readily caught out. I really wonder at how the cops have slipped in their duties.

Last week both the Shiv Sena and the Congress complained vociferously when they discovered they were being snooped upon by plain-clothes policemen. Minister for environment Ramdas Kadam found one such cop in Beed recording his conversation at a meeting with party activists to discuss strategies on the 2019 elections. Leader of the Opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil of the Congress also found two policemen recording his news conference at his official residence recently. He complained to both the police commissioner and the Maharashtra governor.

It is significant that neither Kadam nor Vikhe-Patil thought to draw chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’s attention to the episode, given that he is also Maharashtra’s minister for home and has direct charge and control over the police officers. Both the Sena and the Congress seem to believe that the orders to spy on them could have come directly from the CMO. While that may or may not be true, the clumsiness of the police officers in getting caught out so obviously is pretty surprising. It speaks little of the abilities of our security officials to execute a job like this with the discretion and camouflage required for espionage. Kadam and Vikhe-Patil are no threat to the nation and have nothing to hide (except party strategies). But are these cops capable of infiltrating and securing intelligence from sources that could be really dangerous for the country -like potential terrorists, for example?

Be that as it may, the twin episodes also tell us about the shakiness of the powers that be. Uddhav Thackeray, the Sena chief, has just announced his decision to break the alliance with the BJP in the 2019 polls and Kadam had emphatically prevailed upon him to go it alone in the municipal polls last year as well. He was never furtive. The government would have to be pretty rattled to set spies upon its own minister and the same goes for Vikhe-Patil. What about a rather clueless Congress in the state could be so rattling the authorities that they would want to record a news conference that would be public anyway?

Spying upon friends and foes alike speaks of a lack of confidence. Moreover, curiosity only ends up killing the cat!

First Published: Feb 13, 2018 16:22 IST